Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers & Iron Man (MCU)
Genre: Hurt/comfort, action
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), J.A.R.V.I.S., James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor, Tony’s bots (DUM-E & U).
Appearances & mentions: Phil Coulson, Jane Foster, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Pepper Potts, Betty Ross, Erik Selvig.
Pairings: Pepper/Tony (brief), Jane/Thor (implied), Betty/Bruce (implied)
Summary: The apocalypse is happening and Tony Stark has just been blinded by the enemy. Earth’s remaining heroes must work together to protect their own – and to win a war most have already declared will be humanity’s last.
Written for: Round 2 of Apocalypse Big Bang. Written during NaNoWriMo 2013.
Also fills the “loss of vision” square of my card on Hurt/Comfort Bingo’s round 4.
Cover art & fanmix: monkiainen (here!)
Warnings: Major character death, violence and permanent injury (blindness), apocalyptic scenery (general destruction and death). Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World compliant (may contain minor spoilers), language.
They got picked up some twenty miles outside Toledo, just before Monroe. It had been five days since they started walking – five days that should have easily taken them to their destination even with regular, extended breaks for Tony, but there were over thirty civilians to consider and they weren’t used to marching day and night, no matter the weather or the amount of food, water, warmth and shelter.
The group had relied on Tony’s vision more heavily than originally expected: he detected enemy movement long before anyone else did, giving them time to find cover before Droids were above them. None of them wanted to risk battle with the civilians tagging along, Clint almost out of arrows and Steve still bruised from the last round. Bruce also voiced that he wasn’t looking forward to another transformation so soon, which left them with limited possibilities.
A search team from S.H.I.E.L.D. finally caught up with them, and everyone let out a sigh of relief.
“Any word from Colonel Rhodes?” Tony asked one of the agents while he still wore the helmet.
The man gave him a quick glance then nodded. “The aliens tracked down his group. The Air Force backed them up but there were casualties and a lot of injuries. Colonel Rhodes is reportedly fine, though, and his suit is still functioning.”
It was a nice set of details and Tony accepted the report with a curt nod, knowing the agent hadn’t had a reason to elaborate past a ‘yes’. “Thanks,” he murmured, then turned to locate his teammates. Steve and Bruce were looking at him while Thor was on the phone – possibly with Jane, although Tony could not see his expression; before, he would have known just by looking at Thor that he had been in contact with his beloved Jane.
He lowered his face, focusing on Steve’s shield for a bit. The surface almost blinded him, briefly, as his vision adjusted to gaze at the painted vibranium surface. When the pain wore off, it glimmered at him like the sun, which was a little odd.
“Everything okay?” Bruce asked as Tony slowly moved over to them.
“Rhodey’s safe,” he reported.
“Good,” Natasha commented before anyone else could.
Tony nodded, not feeling like he needed to elaborate on that.
Dummy and You rolled over, chirping quietly, and while looking at the bots Tony almost missed Steve reaching out to him before his hand landed on his shoulder. “You’ve worn the helmet for a while now,” the blond stated, which was a hint. The bots let out clicks of agreement.
Tony hung his head a bit, looking at the ground, imagining the darkness that followed those words. The implants attempted to adjust his gaze, to allow him to see more in-detail, but the earth was dense, without power-lines or wires dug inside it, although there was a pipe, possibly filled with water… “I know,” he whispered.
Steve’s hand slid up on his shoulder, to his neck, and then to the edge between skin and helmet. He didn’t tug or pull; just rested his fingers there, feeling the contrast. Tony supposed his return to darkness was hard on all of them, not just him.
With a sigh, Tony reached up and undid the helmet, feeling it disconnect from the implants before it unlocked from around his skull, allowing him to pull it off.
Steve’s fingers retreated, but only enough to let Tony remove the helmet; they returned to caress his shaved skin, not avoiding the implant sites but careful not to scratch at them, either. “There’s food and water,” Steve offered.
“I think I should sleep,” Tony admitted.
“We have transport coming,” Bruce told him. “Hold out until then.”
Tony nodded and allowed Steve to lead him to something that was possibly a park bench, pulling on his woolly hat one-handed as he walked. As soon as he was seated, someone offered him a bottle – probably water – and a snack bar. It was possibly that same someone who sat beside him as Tony slowly worked to open the wrapper and the twist cap. “I know you think we’re worrywarts, most of the time,” Clint’s voice reached his ears. “About you using the helmet,” he clarified.
“No one wants me to wind up brain-dead – myself included,” Tony stated, taking a careful bite of the snack bar. Chocolate and peanuts, yummy. A little on the dry side, but that’s why he had the water.
“I guess it’s pretty addictive, being able to see again,” Clint went on. Tony wasn’t sure whether the archer actually wanted to talk about it or just felt like he needed to let Tony know he hadn’t left.
“It’s not the same,” Tony mused, taking another bite of the bar. “Not like before. Not like… human eyes.”
“But it’s better than nothing, right?”
“Yeah.” Tony supposed Clint had made his point – if there had been a point to begin with.
“You did good these past few days,” Clint offered, like that was what he had been getting at all this time.
Tony snorted and finished the snack bar with a final bite. “I’m not a kid who needs to be told that,” he said around the mouthful, chewing slowly.
“No, but everyone likes a compliment every once in a while. And… it seems cruel, to switch it on and off while you still can’t make it permanent,” the other man stated, moving to stand up.
“Doesn’t mean I won’t stick my head in that helmet every chance I get,” Tony informed him. “I would have wanted to help even if it weren’t necessary. Now that I can,” he added a bit unhappily.
Clint hummed, like he didn’t quite agree, then walked away.
Tony carefully swallowed and sipped the water, waiting. He knew that he wasn’t alone – knew that one of his team was nearby, or the bots if not the Avengers. He was never truly alone. Some days, it felt like he would never be alone again. He was surprisingly fine with that.
“Hey,” Natasha’s voice called out a moment later.
“Where did Clint find a Snickers bar?” Tony asked.
“No idea; he must have found a store while he was scouting earlier. He sure as hell didn’t give anyone else one,” she retorted, feigning irritation. “Could have saved me a bite,” she teased, sitting down to take Clint’s place, although she shifted closer to him, bumping their shoulders together, letting her warmth settle against Tony’s right side.
Tony smirked in her general direction. “Well, I’m so much nicer than the rest of you…”
Natasha didn’t go for the low blow that would have been a natural extension of that statement. They both knew why Tony got special treatment from all his teammates. They didn’t talk about it because Tony would have rejected their gestures if they had, and thus the balance remained.
Tony drank some more, then carefully twisted the cap back on and laid the bottle in the crease between his legs. He spread his fingers on his thighs, feeling the coarse, dirty pants. All of them needed clean clothes, a shower, and a proper bed to sleep in. Tony wondered who would sleep with him this first night. Rhodey, most likely, if they ended up in the same place. If not… then it would certainly be a question Tony felt almost ridiculously giddy to answer, even though it was utterly pointless to debate either way.
“We’re ready to move out,” Steve’s voice called out to them. “Tony, could you come help me with the bots?” Which meant Tony would be giving instructions and encouragements in case the bots felt uncertain about something – or were simply in a cranky mood. Moving around this much was getting stressful for them, but they had adapted well and Tony put it high on his to-do list to tell them he was proud of them both.
Natasha led him towards the transport, their surroundings swiftly filled by dozens of people talking at once, shouting orders and asking for directions. Still, in the midst of it all, Tony’s ears picked up the sounds of the bots, like a mother honing in on her children.
“Where do you want them?” Tony asked, slowing down a bit, knowing they were approaching whatever means of transport was laid before them.
“On the back of this cargo truck. The bots refuse to get on the lift gate,” Steve answered from nearby, and the bots made a loud protest at his words.
Tony sighed. “Guide me to it. I’ll ride in the back with them.” Natasha didn’t argue; she took him over to where the ground switched over to metal, Tony’s feet just missing the slight rise as he stepped on the lift gate. Natasha didn’t move away, staying where she was, and Tony snapped the fingers of his free hand. “Dummy, You! You know the drill. Roll out.”
He heard the bots comply and their added weights slightly shifted the lift gate. One of the bots poked him in the back then held onto his jacket as if they didn’t like this or were scared. Natasha’s free hand slid over to signal he should tighten his hold, just in time for the lift gate to start moving. Tony tensed, fighting to keep his balance, leaning a little onto the robot arm that was still at his back. Natasha’s hold also had a grounding effect, easing the nauseating sense of falling although Tony knew they were moving up.
The lift gate stopped moving eventually, the final shift upwards almost sending Tony tumbling forward, but the bot pulled onto the back of his jacket harder to prevent that. The insides of the truck container smelled a little foul, and Natasha took a moment to find him a place to sit. The bots rolled in behind them, finding places to stay, and then Tony heard the distinct sound of someone hopping inside.
“I will ride with him,” Thor proclaimed.
“I hope they’ll drive fast,” Natasha murmured, in a low tone that was probably supposed to be missed by Tony.
“We will be able to rest soon,” Thor comforted her, a lot louder, then settled down beside Tony on the hard floor. Natasha left, the lift gate closing after a moment, and Tony noticed that he no longer expected it to get darker the way he had at the beginning of his blindness.
He was finally starting to adapt – just when he also got a chance at restoring his vision, at least partially.
The truck started and jerked forward almost immediately, and Tony braced himself against the motion. A draft started almost instantly, making him tug the collar of his jacket higher and the hat lower over his head
“There is gap in the wall,” Thor mused. He shifted around for a bit without getting up, then draped something around Tony’s form, tugging it firmly around him. “I do not feel the cold as you do,” the Asgardian murmured, and Tony slid his fingers along the heavy fabric. He guessed it was Thor’s cloak. “I can see trees lining the road,” the other man went on. The truck sped up, the road changing, and Tony guessed they had hit a highway. “Trees and grass…”
Tony listened to Thor describe the flashes of things he saw, probably through the aforementioned hole in the container’s wall. The cloak was surprisingly warm and cocooned Tony in a comfortable zone between wakefulness and sleep.
The drive didn’t last long, and Tony was still relatively awake when the lift gate opened and Thor helped him up. He heard the Asgardian snort. “I liked the roadside better,” Thor stated – which meant they were at another industrial-looking military compound.
This time the bots were eager to get onto the lift gate, and Tony could feel their bodies turning and bumping against him as they looked around.
“Rhodey’s here,” Bruce announced just a second before Tony smelled the familiar mix of metal and sweat.
“Thank God,” Rhodey uttered as he approached, his voice so honestly relieved Tony wondered how crappy his last five days had been. Before he could ask, Rhodey was holding onto him and hugging him tight. “I was worried the aliens must have caught up with you, too, the way they kept attacking us over and over.”
“They tried to find us, but we stayed under the radar,” Steve said. As always, Tony hadn’t heard him approach, but then, Rhodey was kind of cutting off his air supply since he refused to relinquish his hold on Tony, making it hard to focus on anything but his friend.
“We’re fine,” Tony managed, patting Rhodey awkwardly on the back.
Rhodey let him go, just a little, probably searching Tony for any signs of concealed trauma. He paused after he must have accepted Tony was still in one piece. “I saw your armor go down, just before we decided to split up,” he said. “It took almost a day before J.A.R.V.I.S. connected with my suit and said you were fine.” His hand returned to grip Tony’s shoulder with bruising force. “I wasn’t sure if you were in the suit or not…”
“If I had been in the suit, J.A.R.V.I.S. would have flown away from the battle, not straight into a Category 5 ship,” Tony noted, then frowned. “Is J okay? I talked to him for the first two days but then my earpiece stopped working and we had trouble with the radio, and once we got some of the radios working he wasn’t responding …”
“I think he’s trying to make back-ups and has been checking the network for errors,” Rhodey replied. “He downloaded a light version of his armor interface to my suit to help me in a pinch, but either way, my suit’s in need of some repairs.”
“I’ll look into it –”
“Not today,” Rhodey ordered. “I need to sleep.” He didn’t let go of Tony’s shoulder, which was more than a hint that Tony was going to join him in that bed, wherever it was.
“Let’s get inside,” Steve decided and led the Avengers into the facility. Rhodey took over Tony’s guidance, a little handsy whenever he needed to point out something out of the usual, but Tony allowed it because they had just been apart for five days, neither of them knowing how the other was doing.
Next time, Tony was going to vote that the team stay together, no matter what. He was certain there had been some tactical advantage in having Rhodey go with the other group, but Tony heard through the grapevine that Rhodey had almost died, and the idea of him not making it back to the rest of them was unbearable. When Tony reached that conclusion, he held onto Rhodey a lot more firmly than was necessary.
The room Rhodey and Tony ended up in was small. The bots stayed outside, most likely guarding the door and threatening to poke anyone who lingered outside it in the hallway.
“I smell,” Tony decided once he stopped long enough to take a whiff of his clothes.
“Shower, then bed,” Rhodey decided, helping Tony strip. With their wardrobes constantly changing, depending on what was available to them, Tony had some difficulty keeping up with the buttons, laces, zippers and other tricky fasteners he hadn’t considered tricky when he could still see them. However, putting on the helmet and activating the implants wasn’t worth the effort, and besides, someone was usually there to help him, just like tonight.
When Rhodey walked them into the shower, the space was cold and small, and the water refused to heat up past lukewarm. Rhodey grumbled but they proceeded with the shower anyway; they needed to get clean.
Just like when he had guided Tony to this room, Rhodey took over the washing duties more than he usually would have. Tony felt like telling him he could do it himself, but Rhodey’s touch was desperate and shaky, as if he needed this in order to cope with some fear Tony didn’t understand, so he left the other man to it, trying not to feel uncomfortable. He had endured worse things with people he liked and respected a lot less than he did James Rhodes.
They finished quickly once the water started turning from lukewarm to icy. Rhodey’s already peculiar mood plummeted a little, but his touch was gentle when he started toweling Tony off. That was where Tony drew the line: “I can do this,” he said simply, took the towel from Rhodey and proceeded to dry himself. The other man didn’t fight him, probably focusing on drying his own body, and by the time Tony was satisfied, Rhodey was ready to take the towel from him, put on a fresh pair of underwear and lead them to the bed.
The sheets smelled clean – too clean – and were almost coarse against the skin. Tony slid in gratefully nonetheless, forgoing supper or brushing his teeth in order to catch a few extra minutes of much-needed sleep. Rhodey got in bed soon after him, and Tony felt his breaths against his face as they curled close to one another. The sheets were too thin to be of any real warmth, but Rhodey’s skin held a heat of its own.
“I heard your trip here didn’t go very well,” Tony mused.
“No. One of the War Ships kept trailing us and after a bit I told the others we should start hiding instead of shooting back. They didn’t listen, but then, it didn’t take long before they were all dead and everyone else agreed on changing tactics. If not for that, I might have come here alone…”
“Why didn’t half the team join you?” Tony frowned. When he had heard the people had split up into two groups, he hadn’t asked who was in the other group, save for Rhodey, but the Avengers had stuck with him.
“They figured my half of the group had enough military fire power to go without an extra superhero. Clearly they were wrong.”
Tony slid a hand over Rhodey’s side and up to his shoulder, squeezing tight. “You’re here. That’s all that matters.”
He felt Rhodey’s head shift on the pillow they were currently sharing, his breaths coming faster, harder. “I was so scared you were being chased by the other ships. That none of you would make it here.”
“We’re all here.” Frankly, though, Tony felt like Rhodey didn’t care about them as a group, but had rather worried only about Tony. “I’m here,” he added in a whisper, just in case it made a difference.
Clearly it did, because Rhodey leaned in and kissed him all of a sudden, surprising Tony. It was quick and desperate, and not to be mistaken for some romantic gesture. Afterwards, Rhodey slid his hand across Tony’s scalp, fingers fanning out, and lay close to him, breaths slowly easing down from their rather strained pace into something that was closer to sleep.
Tony tried to relax in the rather unnatural position. He had grown used to sleeping close to other people by now, but sometimes he still wanted his space – although when the dreams struck, he was happy to find someone on the other side of the mattress, to hold onto until he could sleep again, or until it was time to get up.
The door of the room opened some time later, stirring Tony out of the half-daze he had fallen into. He lifted his head although that didn’t actually make it any clearer what was going on, since he couldn’t see anything.
“May I join you?” Bruce’s voice drifted from the direction of the door.
“Sure,” Tony whispered back. Rhodey didn’t stir so he must have fallen asleep. As Tony moved a little, Rhodey shifted as well, loosening his hold on Tony somewhat. In the darkness, Bruce stripped off his clothes and then rounded the bed, lifting the sheet to slip in behind Tony.
“I brought you something,” Bruce said and Tony felt his friend’s fingers brush against the shell of his ear, then place something in the ear canal. Tony felt a familiar press as the device locked into place and he smiled.
“Good evening, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s smooth voice greeted him. “Congratulations on making it to Toledo.”
“Thanks,” Tony murmured and laid his head back on the pillow as Bruce settled down.
J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t reply or explain the issues he might have been having. The AI must have known, somehow, that Tony was in bed, which meant he was about to sleep; J.A.R.V.I.S. could wait until morning before making his report.
Bruce shifted for a bit longer, as if he couldn’t find a comfortable position. One of his hands moved to lie on Tony’s side, eventually, and Tony moved his own to grasp it, pulling it properly around his body.
“What’s up?” Tony asked. Bruce never joined him in bed when someone else was already there; a third person could join them after Bruce and Tony had already laid down, but for some reason it never happened in reverse.
Bruce was quiet for a moment and Tony was almost convinced he wasn’t going to get an answer. Eventually, though, Bruce pressed his face against the back of Tony’s neck and drew a careful breath. “I shouldn’t have left you.”
“Left me where?”
Tony’s squeezed the fingers in his grip. “You didn’t leave me; I was in good hands, between J.A.R.V.I.S. and the bots.”
“That’s what Betty said,” Bruce murmured morosely.
“You talked to Betty?” Tony knew for a fact that Bruce called Betty Ross a lot less than Thor called Jane Foster. Tony had tried to imply that Bruce should make his move while he still could, with the imminent apocalypse and all, but Bruce was still dragging his feet about it, the stubborn idiot.
Bruce nodded then stilled, and Tony could have sworn he felt Bruce’s lips press a kiss to his skin. It was a very weird night. Maybe they were all starting to reach a breaking point, with the pace of the war obviously changing. “She said that with the implants, you would have the chance to get to safety if the need arose.”
“It didn’t,” Tony said, not lingering on the long minutes while J.A.R.V.I.S. led him around while the enemy blew up the city around them. All of it felt more oppressing and intimate when he couldn’t see a thing, but there was no reason to tell Bruce that right now, when he was already upset.
“I’m sorry about the armor,” Bruce added, as if that was his fault, too.
“Me, too, but… I have a few more in reserve, in case of a bad day. A really bad day,” he added, because bad days were mandatory right now.
Bruce chuckled and fell silent, clearly done apologizing and feeling guilty – at least long enough to let Tony sleep if he could not find rest of his own.
Tony snapped out of the deep reverie he had fallen into. The air was stirring around his shelter, creating a draft more powerful than the wind alone. Next came a sound, like an afterthought, and he stiffened in response to it: an engine, hovering somewhere above him. For a few seconds he dared to think of rescue, but it could just as well be the aliens, and if he ran, he had no idea where he was going to end up. Shot, most likely, like a frightened animal mid-flight.
A heavy thump came from close by, making him start. It would be best to lay still and quiet, to make them think he was dead or maybe not have them find him at all…
Footsteps followed the thump, but instead of the hard, metallic fall of alien armor’s feet, it was softer yet no less heavy. Tony held his breath, listening to the steps moving around. A sharp inhale, louder than the air still being stirred by the engines, carried over to him, then another.
Tony envisioned some alien beast trying to sniff him out, but he had never seen such a thing, or heard of any other kind of aliens than the ones they had already encountered in the suits or on the manned ships.
The sniffing continued, followed by an angry growl and the sound of something heavy rolling over, colliding with something equally heavy; a piece of a storm drain pipe hitting another.
Were they going to smash the pipes into pieces and find his mangled body in the ruins?
Of all the ways to die Tony could think of, that wasn’t one of his favorites. Broken bones, internal bleeding; Extremis trying to fight the damage until the aliens dug him out and finished the job –
“Tony,” a voice called, guttural and familiar, banishing any thoughts of death. Another strong sniff and a disappointed growl followed, then a smashing sound, concrete breaking.
“I’m here,” Tony called out, his voice pathetically weak. He started moving towards one end of the pipe – the one closest to his head because it really didn’t matter to him where he came out, as long as he did.
The heavy footfalls followed his progress out of the pipe, and when Tony finally felt wet earth under his palms instead of cold concrete, the massive feet took a few running steps before halting. The earth shivered faintly under the moving weight but Tony welcomed it for once, helplessly waiting for some indication of where the other was. He wasn’t about to lose this chance to be saved, to be taken back, or wherever they were heading out next.
“Tony,” his name was repeated, although softly this time, and Tony felt a giant hand brush his hair, then his shoulder.
He reached out and grabbed onto it, feeling the thick skin of the Hulk’s hand. “Are the others here?” he asked, remembering the sound of the engine once more.
“Hulk find Tony,” the Hulk proclaimed, then without warning moved and picked Tony up into the giant arms. “Hulk keeps Tony safe.”
As many objections as there may have been in the past, Tony simply clung to one giant arm the best he could as they started moving. He didn’t know where they were going – if there was a plane nearby, perhaps a Quinjet, or if he had imagined the engine altogether.
“Tony!” Steve’s voice cut through the air, sharp and filled with concern. Relief, too. Water splashed as he ran towards them, switching to solid ground just shortly before he was right there, in front of the Hulk. “May I take a look at him?” Steve asked the Hulk, obviously, his voice trembling faintly.
The Hulk let out a grunt that may have meant he didn’t like it, but Tony felt himself being lowered – right into Steve’s waiting arms. His feet hit the ground clumsily while Steve hugged him close, reminding Tony of the first day of his blindness when Steve and the others found him in the woods by his home in Malibu.
“Thank God,” Steve murmured in his ear, and Tony felt like voicing some concerns at the crack in his voice. He didn’t, however, because he didn’t want to waste a second to hold onto Steve in return, unwilling to let go.
“Hulk find Tony,” the Hulk declared once again, then stomped a few feet away.
“It’s okay,” Steve murmured, leaning back a little. Tony knew the other man was going to check him for injuries, but Tony didn’t let himself be pushed very far.
“I waited,” Tony said, voice still weak. “I didn’t leave.”
Steve’s hands tightened where they were holding onto him. His breaths changed, too, like he was going to cry or go punch a hole into one of the concrete pipes Hulk hadn’t smashed. “We’ve been looking for you for two days. It’s been three since Natasha last saw you. The battle dragged out and afterwards, we couldn’t find either of you. Then she showed up, after evading the aliens for half a day after trying to track their movements, and she…” Again Steve’s hold on him tightened fractionally. It was going to leave bruises, but Tony didn’t want to say anything that might make the other man let go of him. “She wasn’t sure where she left you. It was dark when she took off, and…” A sharp inhale and an extremely slow exhale brought some control back into Steve’s voice. “You’re safe now.”
Tony just nodded.
“Can you walk?” Steve asked next.
“I think so,” Tony stated, frowning. “Why wouldn’t I? I’m fine.” However, when he tried taking one step to prove it, weakness overtook him and he sagged a little towards the ground. He hadn’t felt so faint when lying down, but if it had really been three days, he supposed the thirst and hunger he had felt – and then hadn’t anymore – were long overdue to be taken care of.
Steve didn’t ask for permission when he lifted Tony into his arms. He took them across the water and up to the familiar smell of engines and fuel.
“He’s okay, right?” Tony heard Clint call out.
“He had better be,” Rhodey chimed in, moving closer as he talked. “We’ve been out here looking for him, day and night, for two goddamn days.” He sounded mad, and Tony wondered what he had done wrong, but Steve was still holding onto him and Tony figured that whatever their problem was, it could wait.
“I’m feeling a bit cold,” Tony confessed as Steve took him inside the plane – a Quinjet, Tony guessed. “And thirsty,” he added. “Hungry, too.”
“Bruce has just transformed back to himself,” Thor’s voice answered. “If you can wait a moment, he will make certain you are well.”
“Let’s get you out of these clothes,” Steve decided, not waiting for Bruce to get his bearings.
Tony nodded numbly and allowed several hands to undress him, then re-dress him in blissfully warm, clean clothes. All that time he didn’t hear Natasha’s voice, and he tried listening for it, to make sure she was okay. “Where’s Nat?” he asked finally, when Bruce had finally dragged himself over and was pushing an IV needle into Tony’s arm. Tony knew he didn’t need a drip as long as he got water to drink and food to eat, but it had sounded like a non-negotiable thing when Bruce asked for his arm.
“I’m here,” Natasha replied from the other side of the plane by the sound of it. “I’m glad we found you.” She didn’t sound like herself, and not for the first time did Tony wonder if she had left him there to die on purpose.
“We’re taking off,” Clint called from the cockpit and no sooner did the ramp rise than the engines started, lifting them off the ground and into the air. Tony braced his feet against the floor, nursed the water bottle Steve had given him and tried telling himself he wasn’t just going to wake up back in the pipe, dreaming of rescue.
Well, at least the prick in his arm where Bruce had stuck the needle was very real.
They didn’t fly for very long, but Tony lost track of time at one point, possibly falling asleep for a little bit. When they landed, Bruce disconnected the drip but left the needle in his arm, clearly planning on giving him more fluids once they were inside whatever base or S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret lair they were staying at this time.
Tony walked this time, although Bruce kept supporting his weight. He lost track of the hallways and turns as soon as they got inside, and once they entered a room that was probably theirs, Tony was met by enthusiastic beeps from the bots. “Daddy’s back,” Tony called to them fondly, petting them as they came over before Bruce directed him to a nice, soft bed. Tony rolled onto it, sighing, feeling someone tugging off his shoes. His pants were next, then the long sleeved hoodie someone had pulled on him, and that was all he seemed to be required to take off before getting some rest.
“Sleep,” Bruce urged, connecting another IV bag to the needle and taping the tube carefully to Tony’s skin. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”
“Feeling fantastic now,” Tony claimed.
Bruce hummed and slid a hand up to run his fingers through Tony’s hair at a pleasant, soothing pace.
“Where are the others?” Tony asked, eyes drifting shut although that didn’t matter, but the others seemed to have a better idea when he was about to fall asleep if he used such a natural cue. Besides, just because he couldn’t see didn’t mean he could sleep with his eyes open.
“Most of us are here,” Rhodey’s voice replied.
“Aye,” Thor threw in.
“Watching you sleep isn’t considered creepy, right?” Clint asked, but his voice was unusually devoid of humor.
Somewhere, behind a wall or a closed door, a voice rose suddenly: “You just left him there!” It was Steve, unmistakably so.
Bruce’s hand stilled for a moment, then continued, the pace different now; he was trying to distract Tony, and perhaps himself, from what was going on outside the room.
“I needed to know if there was a safe way for us to move on from that place,” Natasha’s voice replied, sharp and on the defense.
“You left him there, alone, defenseless,” Steve went on, and he was finally letting that fury out that he had been holding in when he saw Tony. “I gave you one job to do –”
“What was I supposed to do, sit there and hold his hand while the Drones were flying around above us? I didn’t know if anyone was coming for us. I didn’t know if we could have gone back, either. He would have been too slow to drag around the enemy lines.”
“You should have stayed with him,” Steve spat. “No matter what. The enemy had three days to find him, to finish the job.”
“I was going to go back for him. I told you that from the start,” Natasha argued, although weakly, like she was starting to agree with Steve. “I would have gone back for him, but the enemy moved between us and forcing my way to him would have drawn their attention. I chose to come find you instead, as long as I had an opening.”
“After which we had to use two days to find him again. He could have wandered off and we would still be searching for him. He could have gotten himself killed, alone and afraid, not knowing where the hell he was and who was coming after him first, us or them.”
“Maybe next time you’ll assign someone better equipped to protect him,” Natasha snapped.
“Damn sure I will.”
Tony tensed at the obvious anger in Steve’s voice. He had never heard it before, not even during his and Steve’s worst fights. Steve was upset about this and it was clearly affecting everyone else. “I was fine,” Tony stated, although it wasn’t exactly true. However, he wasn’t going to admit he had been just as afraid as Steve was suggesting, sitting alone in that pipe, waiting, hoping, dreading…
“No, you weren’t,” Bruce answered, although softly, as if he had already mastered his anger. Perhaps letting the other guy out had given him some peace of mind.
“You found me,” Tony tried another tactic. “That’s the only thing that matters, right? We’re back together and we’ll keep it that way.” He hesitated. “Unless, you know, you really want to leave me behind. Which is okay, but I would appreciate a heads up… I know it isn’t exactly a cakewalk being around me these days.”
“Shut up,” Clint growled. “You’re one of us; that hasn’t changed. Natasha made the wrong call – the one more suited for her – but she’s been regretting it ever since she realized she couldn’t get back to you without putting you even more at risk. She’s letting Cap chew her out so that he can let the pressure out. It was Steve’s call to make her take you out of harm’s way when the battle first started showing signs of getting out of hand, and he thinks it’s on him that you were abandoned.”
“Not abandoned,” Tony corrected, now that he knew the others hadn’t meant to leave him. “Just… lost, for a little bit.” Bruce’s fingers stilled and squeezed his hair for a little bit, and Tony wasn’t sure whom he was trying to reassure more, himself or Tony.
A door opened and Tony listened to the light steps moving towards him. “I’m sorry,” Natasha whispered, a lot closer than Tony had thought she was.
“I know,” Tony replied, although he wasn’t totally convinced yet. Knowing her and her past, the way she had learned to survive… In her world, people like Tony got left behind.
“I think Steve wants me to find somewhere else to sleep,” she went on.
“Well, tough,” Clint snorted. “I already called the couch and it has a place for you on it, too.”
Tony wished he could have seen Natasha’s answering look. “Thanks.”
“Where’s Steve?” Tony asked.
“Blowing off some steam, probably,” Rhodey replied. “He’ll join us when he’s ready to be civil.”
“I shall join him for a moment,” Thor announced. “Get rest, my friends. Our next battle awaits us, perhaps sooner than we would like.”
“Please don’t say that,” Clint begged but moved from wherever he had been sitting, probably willing to take the hint and get some rest. Tony knew how worn out they all used to be after a battle, and if they had spent two days post-battle looking for him… Rest was long overdue for all of them.
“Who’s cuddling with me?” Tony asked, teasingly. “I’m still cold.”
“No, you’re not, but I’m going to join you,” Bruce replied. Tony was secretly glad it was Bruce who got in bed with him, because he was still a little cold and after sitting three days alone in a cold pipe, he could use someone who liked closeness with lots of touching.
Rhodey clearly intended on finding somewhere else to sleep because he didn’t volunteer to warm Tony’s other side; perhaps there was another bed.
It made sense that at some time during the night, Steve slipped into bed behind Tony, warm and solid against his back. Tony wanted to tell him to stop worrying, but he knew it wouldn’t do him any good and he was too tired to open his mouth anyway, instead going back to sleep as Steve’s breaths fell into an easy, deep rhythm against his shoulder blade.
to be continued…